Individuals usually affirm or deny the reality of miracles depending upon whether or not they accept or reject the existence of God and the reliability of the Bible. People who believe only in the typical operations of nature think that miracles could never have existed because they believe such would have been a violation of natural laws. They think that the laws of nature do not change, that miracles are unlikely because nature is thought to act with regularity whereas miraculous activity is irregular, and that miracles could not have existed because they cannot be explained by science. They think that all miraculous events portrayed in the Bible must be explained by natural causation. Such thinking distorts the meaning of the biblical concept of miracles.
The Bible portrays miracles as immediate unnatural events that are caused by the supernatural power of God. Some miracles came directly from God and were independent of human agency, such as the creation of the heavens and the earth (Genesis1-2; Ps 33:9; Isaiah 42:5; 45:12; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 11:3), feeding the Israelites with manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16:12-23), the resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 28:1-7; Mark 16:1-7; Luke 24:1-7; 1 Corinthians 15:3-20), and Jesus’ ascension into heaven (Acts 1:9-11).
Some miracles from God were associated with human agency, such as Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea (Exodus 14-15), the walls of Jericho falling down after the Israelites marched around the city in the prescribed way (Joshua 6), healing of lame men by Peter (Acts 3:1-8) and by Paul (Acts 14:8-10), etc.
Clarification of the Issue
Is the issue really about whether or not miracles have existed, or is the issue about what standards should be used to judge whether or not miracles have occurred? Inasmuch as serious rejections to the reality of miracles did not exist until seventeen centuries after the birth of Christ, is it not reasonable to suppose that the standards for assessing whether or not miracles have existed have changed?
Until recent centuries, people generally believed in the supernatural and therefore had no reluctance to believe in the existence and reality of miracles. With the type of thinking that came from the Renaissance and the so-called “Enlightenment” eras, people gradually but increasingly began to reject the concept of the supernatural. Societies’ rejection of supernatural beliefs has now been replaced with the belief that nature is all there is and that the only acceptable standard for evaluating human thinking is information derived from science. This process automatically requires denial of belief in the existence not only of miracles but also of God.
The issue then is whether or not the current standard is valid for evaluating the possibility that miracles have existed. Some matters need further consideration. Why did people once generally believe in the reality of miracles? On what basis did people previously reject the working of miracles? Is nature all there is? Why have miracles occurred? Do miracles occur now? Will they occur in the future?
Why did people once generally believe in the reality of miracles?
Until recent centuries the idea of the supernatural was generally accepted in all societies. Since consideration of what is real was not limited to what is natural, miracles were considered plausible within the realm of the supernatural. Because miracles were not typical events within nature, when miracles happened, people were amazed and marveled at them (Matthew 8:27; 9:6-8, 33; 12:22-23; 15:31; 21:20; Mark 1:26-27; 2:12; 5:20; 6:51; Luke 4:33-36; 9:42-43; 11:14; Acts 2:7, 12; 3:11; 8:13).
Miracles were seen (Matthew 14:26; 15:31; 21:20) and heard (Matthew 17:6; Acts 2:1-8). They were performed in the presence of credible witnesses (Matthew 14:15-21; Mark 8:1-9) and generally recognized as beneficial (Matthew 4:23; 9:35; Luke 6:17-18; 9:6, 11).
Miraculous events produced instantaneous effects (Acts 3:5-11; 9:36-42; 14:7-18) and demonstrated facts (1 Kings 18:36-39; Romans 1:3-4). People therefore recognized that miracles were associated with meanings. Thus, during and immediately following biblical times, everyone – whether friend or foe – acknowledged the reality of miracles.
On what basis did people previously reject the working of miracles?
During Jesus’ lifetime, whenever people opposed the working of miracles they did so only because they were performed on the Sabbath day (Matthew 12:10-12, Mark 3:2, Luke 13:14-16). Although opponents did not reject the reality of miracles, they sometimes rejected the message that accompanied a miracle (Acts 4:1-2), and/or they willfully rejected those who performed miracles (John 11:46-53).
Jewish leaders believed that miracles and those who performed them constituted a challenge to their authority. They therefore resisted them because they did not want to lose their power over the people (John 5:16-18; 11:46-53; Acts 4:13-18; 5:28).
Is nature all there is?
The proposition that nature is all that exists (i.e., that the supernatural does not exist) is affirmed not by Christianity but by the humanist worldview. Notice the following quotations from significant humanist documents.
“Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values” (Humanist Manifesto I, Fifth).
“Any account of nature should pass the tests of scientific evidence; in our judgment, the dogmas and myths of traditional religions do not do so. Even at this late date in human history, certain elementary facts based upon the critical use of scientific reason have to be restated. We find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural; it is either meaningless or irrelevant to the question of the survival and fulfillment of the human race. As non-theists, we begin with humans not God, nature not deity” (Humanist Manifesto II. Religion, First).
“We consider the universe to be a dynamic scene of natural forces that are most effectively understood by scientific inquiry. We are always open to the discovery of new possibilities and phenomena in nature. However, we find that traditional views of the existence of God either are meaningless, have not yet been demonstrated to be true, or are tyrannically exploitative. Secular humanists may be agnostics, atheists, rationalists, or skeptics, but they find insufficient evidence for the claim that some divine purpose exists for the universe” (A Secular Humanist Declaration, 6. Religious Skepticism).
Although Humanists consider science to be the means for determining the nature of things that exist, science cannot determine whether there is existence beyond the realm of nature. Therefore to claim that nature is all that exists is only an assumption not verifiable by scientific experimentation. This assumption disallows the existence of the supernatural and thereby excludes acceptance of ideas about divine revelation, miraculous events, or life after death because these things are not within the natural realm of things.
Why did miracles occur?
Compassion obviously moved Jesus to perform many miracles of healing (Matthew 14:14; Mark 1:40-42; 9:17-27). Many miracles performed by Jesus and His apostles related to healing the sick (Luke 7:22; Acts 5:12-16; 19:11-12), casting out demons (Matthew 12:22; Mark 1:39; Luke 4:41; 8:30-39; 9:1-2; 10:17), and raising the dead (Luke 7:11-17; 8:41, 51-56; John 11:43-44; Acts 9:36-42). Even so, Jesus emphasized preaching over healing (Mark 1:35-38).
The primary purpose of miracles was to confirm the truthfulness of God’s revealed message and the authenticity of God’s messengers, even though miracles were beneficial to individuals and demonstrated God’s power. Miracles were given to accompany revelations from God. This can be noted from several incidents. First, before the Law of Moses was given (Exodus 20, Hebrews 12:25-26), Moses thought that the Egyptians would not believe that he had been sent to free the Israelites. God gave him the power to change his rod into a serpent and then back again into a rod so that the Egyptians “may believe that the LORD God of their fathers . . . has appeared to you” (Exodus 4:5). Second, when God’s people needed restoration from imminent apostasy, e.g., when fire consumed Elijah’s sacrifice (1 Kings 18:31-39), and third, when Christ instituted the new covenant (Hebrews 1:1-2; 2:3-4).
Many miracles of Jesus were performed to prove that He was the Son of God. The man whom Jesus healed of his blindness recognized that Jesus was a prophet because he was now able to see (John 9:17). When Jesus healed a paralytic, it served as proof to those in the room that Jesus was “the Son of Man” and could forgive sins (Mark 2:4-11). The apostle John wrote about the miracles of Jesus in order “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31).
Many miracles of Jesus demonstrated His power over nature. He calmed the stormy Sea of Galilee (Matthew 8:23-27), walked on the water (Matthew 14:25-26; Mark 6:48-49; John 6:19), and destroyed an unproductive fig tree (Matthew 21:19).
The message of salvation was confirmed by miracles. Peter’s message on the Day of Pentecost about salvation in Christ was confirmed by the miracle of the apostles’ speaking in foreign languages to convince people that the message was true (Acts 2). The household of Cornelius miraculously spoke in tongues to convince Peter and others that the gospel was for Gentiles as well as for Jews (Acts 10:34-48; 11:15-18).
In summary, apostolic messages of salvation, spoken by the Lord and His apostles, were confirmed to “those who heard Him, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit” (Hebrews 2:3-4). When no need existed to confirm a message from God, sick individuals were sometimes not healed. Thus, Epaphroditus remained sick in Rome (Philippians 2:26-27), Timothy had frequent infirmities (1 Timothy 5:23), and Trophimus was “left in Miletus sick” (2 Timothy 4:20).
Do miracles exist now? Will they exist in the future?
Although miracles were performed during biblical times, several arguments can be given to prove that biblical miracles no longer exist. First, miracles to confirm the word of God are no longer needed since we now have the written word of God. Paul informed the Corinthians that “when that which is perfect is come” (i.e., the written word) “then that which is in part” (i.e., prophecy, tongue speaking, miracles, etc.) “will be done away” (1 Corinthians 13:10). Second, “all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him” (2 Peter 1:3) have already been revealed through the new covenant. Hence, there is no further need for miracles to confirm any revelations from God. Third, the special gift of miracles from the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:7-10) which was bestowed by the apostles’ hands is no longer available because no one is now qualified to perform miracles.
Jesus granted the apostles their abilities to perform miracles (Matthew 10:1; Mark 3:14-15; 6:7; Luke 9:1-2; 24:49; Acts 1:8; 5:14-16; 14:8-10; 28:8-9), and they sometimes granted that ability to others in the church (Acts 6:6, 8; 8:6-7; 1 Corinthians 12:4-10; 1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6). However, those persons who were granted these special gifts through the laying on of the apostles’ hands had no power from God to pass these miraculous gifts on to others. Phillip had the ability to work miracles, but not being an apostle, he had no ability to give to others the ability to work miracles (Acts 8:6-7, 14-17). Hence, the ability for people to perform miracles ceased when the apostles died.
According to the Bible, a miracle will occur in the future, i.e., at the end of time. This will be when the dead arise (John 5:28-29; 1 Corinthians 15:12-24; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) to stand in judgment before God (2 Corinthians 5:10; Hebrews 9:27; 2 Thessalonians 1:4-10; Revelation 20:11-15) and be directed toward eternal destiny (Matthew 25:31-46).
Miracles were supernatural acts of God. Although miracles often benefited individuals, their primary functions were to confirm divine revelations and to authenticate God’s messengers. Although miracles operate within nature, they are not typical natural events.
The existence of miracles can be neither proven nor disproven by scientific experimentation because science does not operate in the supernatural realm. People who do not believe in the existence of miracles do so because they reject the supernatural, whereas people who do believe in the existence of miracles do so because they believe in divine revelation.